Florida Department of Health Settles Lawsuit, Agrees to Publish Comprehensive COVID-19 Data

In a significant development, the Florida Center for Government Accountability (FLCGA), a non-profit public records watchdog, has reached a settlement with the Florida Department of Health regarding the publication of detailed COVID-19 data. The settlement, announced on October 9, 2023, comes after FLCGA sued the state on behalf of former state Representative Carlos Guillermo Smith.[0] As part of the settlement, the department is required to publish comprehensive COVID-19 data on its website and pay $152,250 in legal fees to FLCGA and Smith’s attorneys.

Under the terms of the settlement, the Florida Department of Health is obligated to provide detailed COVID-19 data on its website for the next three years. This includes information on vaccination counts, case counts, and deaths, which will be aggregated weekly and broken down by county, age group, gender, and race.

While neither party admitted fault in the settlement, it is worth noting that The Orlando Sentinel reports that the Florida Department of Health will be required to pay the legal fees and publish comprehensive COVID-19 data. Smith, an Orlando Democrat, expressed his dissatisfaction with the department’s handling of the pandemic, stating that they lied about the existence of public records and downplayed the threat of COVID-19, resulting in unnecessary loss of life.[1]

Smith and FLCGA had made public records requests in July and August 2021, seeking daily information about COVID-19 cases, positivity rates, hospitalizations, deaths, and vaccinations.[2] When the department denied these requests, they filed a lawsuit.[3] The settlement agreement vindicates the importance of transparency and accountability, with Michael Barfield, director of Public Access Initiatives at FLCGA, stating that “the Constitution mandates it.”

The settlement requires the Department of Health to provide detailed COVID-19 data for the next three years, ensuring that the public has access to crucial information. It also highlights the importance of accurate reporting during a public health crisis. The department’s decision to restrict information and downplay the threat of COVID-19 has been criticized, with Smith asserting that it cost many lives.

The Florida Department of Health has argued that COVID-19 data has always been available through historical reports and has been reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).[4] However, the settlement underscores the need for transparency and the public’s right to access accurate and up-to-date information.

Smith’s lawsuit gained support from several news organizations, including the Miami Herald and the Tampa Bay Times, as well as the First Amendment Foundation, demonstrating the significance of the case.[5] The DeSantis administration has now agreed to release previously suppressed data about COVID-19’s spread in Florida, marking a victory for government openness and accountability.[6]

Moving forward, the Florida Department of Health will be obligated to provide weekly data on vaccination counts, case counts, and deaths. This data will be broken down by county, age group, gender, and race, allowing for a more comprehensive understanding of the impact of COVID-19 in the state.

Overall, the settlement between FLCGA and the Florida Department of Health serves as a reminder of the importance of transparency and accountability during public health crises. It ensures that the public has access to crucial information and holds government agencies responsible for their actions. By publishing detailed COVID-19 data, the Department of Health can contribute to a more informed public and aid in the fight against the pandemic.

0. “Ron DeSantis Loses Fight to Limit COVID Data” Newsweek, 9 Oct. 2023, https://www.newsweek.com/ron-desantis-loses-lawsuit-allowing-covid-data-released-1833216

1. “DeSantis’ health officials to disclose withheld Florida COVID data in settlement” Yahoo News, 9 Oct. 2023, https://news.yahoo.com/desantis-health-officials-disclose-withheld-223118773.html

2. “Florida settles COVID-19 public records lawsuit, agrees to release weekly data on its website again” Orlando Sentinel, 9 Oct. 2023, https://www.orlandosentinel.com/2023/10/09/state-settles-covid-19-public-records-lawsuit-will-begin-releasing-data-again

3. “DeSantis administration must turn over Florida COVID-19 data as part of lawsuit settlement” Orlando Weekly, 9 Oct. 2023, https://www.orlandoweekly.com/news/desantis-administration-must-turn-over-florida-covid-19-data-as-part-of-lawsuit-settlement-35255583

4. “Florida Health to release detailed COVID-19 data for 3 years as part of settlement” Florida Politics, 9 Oct. 2023, https://floridapolitics.com/archives/638541-florida-health-to-release-detailed-covid-19-data-for-3-years-as-part-of-settlement

5. “Florida must release COVID-19 data in settlement with watchdog group” Tampa Bay Times, 9 Oct. 2023, https://www.tampabay.com/news/florida-politics/2023/10/09/florida-must-release-covid-19-data-settlement-with-watchdog-group

6. “DeSantis administration caves on COVID statistics, agrees to massive data dump” Florida Phoenix, 9 Oct. 2023, https://floridaphoenix.com/2023/10/09/desantis-administration-caves-on-covid-statistics-agrees-to-massive-data-dump/

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